This year’s 13 April completes 34 years since the Indian Army launched “Operation Meghdoot” and brought the Siachen glacier and the Satoro heights under its control. The move was justified not only to assert India’s claim of the Saltoro ridge being the rightful extension of the Line of Control beyond the point NJ 9842, but also to deny Pakistani control from Indira col to the Karakoram Pass, which would allow the Pakistani Army a virtual access to entire Ladakh. Several skirmishes were fought by both the sides before finally arriving on the 2003 ceasefire agreement.
While it is well known that the dispute has refused to die down despite a dozen rounds of failed negotiations, recently observed developments from the Chinese side in the north of Siachen once again give India an additional reason to hold the world’s highest battlefield. More than three decades into the conflict, a parallel debate had raged on calling upon the respective armies to withdraw from the uninhabitable region but as the signs of Chinese presence grow in High Asia’s permafrost horizon, Siachen has once again begun to be viewed from two-front conflict scenario, this time from practical perspectives.
Recently obtained satellite imagery points towards infrastructure developments in the Shaksgam valley, lying immediate north of the glacier in the Tarim watershed. Images accessed by The Print show a 36-kilometre road being constructed in the valley. “Satellite images show that this new road is linked to two Chinese military posts outside Shaksgam Valley…thought to be the headquarters of the PLA unit operating in the area.”, an article in the magazine states.
The valley became part of the Chinese territory following the China-Pakistan border agreement of 1963, which New Delhi continues to question citing the valley as part of the Kashmiri territory by the Kashmiri ruler’s suzerainty over a principality which had claims over the Shaksgam tract. After the Indian Army occupied the glacier, the de-facto trijunction shifted to the Indira Col, with the military’s focus largely being limited towards the west of Saltoro, from where Pakistani side has made numerous attempts to dislodge the Indian forces.
From a tactical perspective, while the developments could be viewed as routine border infrastructure development activities otherwise normal on part of the Chinese, the strategic implications could be serious for the region, reviving the talk of a two-front conflict with China and Pakistan, a subject of constant discussion in New Delhi’s strategic and policy circles, given its hostile relationship with two nations and the ongoing dispute over the Kashmiri territory, which got complicated further in Siachen, owing the Karakoram topography. The fact that the imagery observed shows its development took place immediately after the Doka La standoff possibly points towards Beijing’s quest to identify and build presence at vulnerable spots on the Sino-Indian border.
While Chinese takeover of Aksai Chin following the 1962 war, the 1963 Sino-Pak border agreement and the Chinese role in the construction of Karakoram Highway made it an active third party to the overall Kashmir dispute, its growing presence close to the Siachen brings Chinese military presence close to Indian and Pakistani deployments in and around the Karakoram region.
Possible scenarios could be deduced from the development, which could have direct security implications on India’s control over the Siachen. Besides facilitating reinforcements from the National Highway 219, the road in Shaksgam could be extended to link it with the Karakoram Highway, possibly near the Khunjerab Pass border crossing (the de-facto Sino-Pak border where the highway enters China), which lies relatively close to the Trans-Karakoram tract. Once completed, the road link could provide an additional route facilitating Pakistani troop movements to north of Siachen, in addition to army’s permanent presence to the west of the Saltoro ridge in Baltistan. Joint military drills in the valley could further heighten tension in northern Ladakh, prompting the Indian forces to remain in alert.
While nuclear overhang has reduced the possibility of a sustained conventional conflict either between India and China or India and Pakistan, the concept of a joint Kargil-style territorial grab in the eastern Karakoram cannot be ruled out in case of a conflict, in addition to the Chinese engaging Indians on other disputed fronts spread across the LAC. Drawing lessons from Doka La, such pattern of Chinese infrastructure development at multiple points along the Line of Actual Control has given rise to the possibility of limited thrusts into the Indian-held territories, with the threat amplified in the Siachen region since the Pakistani collusion would not be ruled out.
The new status quo along the LAC is characterised by the establishment of permanent military structures along the Chinese side of the border. The usual Chinese incursion tactics of intermittent border incursions seem to be supplemented with the presence of permanent infrastructure with an aim to sustain incursions and aggressive posturing, as it happened in the aftermath of the Doka La standoff, where construction has revived in the North Doka La. Even though conflict may not be on cards, and some of New Delhi’s policy shifts (especially the recent Dalai Lama episode) appear to show a tilt towards China, both nations’ LAC postures have played spoilers in the bilateral relationship. The Shaksgam development gives all the reasons for New Delhi to be prepared for a long haul.
The author is Research Associate with Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based public policy think tank.
Updated Date: Apr 14, 2018 10:14 AM